SAN DIEGO (AP) – President Joe Biden, under political pressure, has agreed to admit four times as many refugees this fiscal year as its predecessor, but resettlement agencies admit that the number actually allowed in the United States will be closer to the record ceiling of 15,000 set by former President Donald Trump.
Refugee advocates say they are grateful for the increase, as it is symbolically important to show the world that the United States is back as a humanitarian leader at a time when the number of refugees in the world is the highest since Second World War. But they’re also frustrated, as more refugees could have been admitted if Biden hadn’t dragged his feet.
“Roughly 10,000 to 15,000 is what we would expect,” World Relief’s Jenny Yang said, adding that Biden’s inaction for months after he took office in January was “definitely problematic.”
âThis delay meant not being able to process refugee claims for four months. We couldn’t rebuild for four months, so it was a real shame, âYang said.
Biden first offered to raise the cap to 62,500 in February in a plan submitted to Congress, but then refused to sign it for two months before returning on April 16 and suggesting he was sticking to the target. from Trump.
Democratic allies and refugee advocates blasted him, saying he was reneging on his campaign pledge in the face of bipartisan criticism over his handling of an increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children at the US-Mexico border.
âTo be clear: the southern border asylum process and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems. The confrontation of the two constitutes a cession to the politics of fear, âsaid Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Weeks later, on May 3, Biden stepped up to the plate.
So far this year, only around 2,500 refugees have arrived, with less than five months before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
More than 35,000 refugees have been screened and approved to come to the United States, but thousands have been disqualified under the tight eligibility criteria Trump established in October when he set the low cap.
By the time Biden expanded eligibility, many health exams and documents were no longer valid, according to resettlement agencies. And if someone had a baby during that time, then the whole family could be stranded.
Even under the best of circumstances, updating each case can take two months.
Before the Trump administration’s drastic cuts, the United States admitted more refugees each year than all the other countries put together under a 41-year-old program.
With a family history that includes two in-laws who fled Europe during and after WWII, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed to restore that leadership by dramatically raising the cap in the early days of administration. . The State Department recommended to the White House that the cap be set at 62,500, officials said.
But a senior official familiar with Blinken’s thinking said it quickly became clear that the State Department offices responsible for refugee resettlement had been so empty that they would not be able to process and process. absorb this number of refugees.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, described the situation as “the yearning for reality” and said Blinken reluctantly concluded that 62,500 would not be possible in the short term.
“It turned out there was even more damage than we thought,” Blinken told reporters this month.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has also been taxed by the increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the US border, according to the administration. Some $ 85 million has been embezzled from refugee resettlement money to help documents published by the New York Times show.
Biden didn’t want to promise something he wasn’t sure was possible, Blinken said.
âSo we had to take some time to make sure that the resources were in place, that the people were in place, that the programs were in place to accommodate the refugees who were arriving,â he said.
The Trump administration had cut US personnel overseas interviewing refugees by 117 officers. As a result, the number of interviews conducted decreased by a third in 2019 compared to those conducted in 2016 under the Obama administration. That number declined almost entirely in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Due to travel restrictions in and out of refugee processing sites around the world, the United States suspended refugee arrivals from March 19 to July 29 last year, except for emergencies. Only 11,800 refugees were admitted in FY2020, the lowest number in the history of the program.
The administration is working to rehire those staff and address the backlog, including allowing interviews to be conducted by video teleconference instead of in person, said State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter.
But it can take months to train new officers.
The government is also trying to tackle the levels of verification put in place by the Trump administration, which have virtually crippled the process and required, for example, refugees to submit 10 years of addresses, which is nearly impossible to do. for people who have been on the move.
Biden has pledged money to expand the operations of resettlement agencies, which are paid for by the federal government per refugee served. With the number of refugees declining, agencies were forced to close around 100 offices across the country under the Trump administration.
So far, some agencies have only been able to muster a few dozen qualified people after losing their experienced staff.
They also need time to reestablish their partnerships with landlords, employers and others who have helped refugees settle in communities, a challenge with rising housing prices and other related additional constraints. to the pandemic.
The âsad truthâ warned Biden when he finally set the goal at 62,500 is that the goal will not be met.
Instead, the administration and advocates are working to fix the program by 2022 when Biden promised to raise the cap to 125,000.
Lee reported from Washington.